The pressure is enormous and Berlin seems to be giving way. At least the director of the new Humboldt Museum in Berlin, Hartmut Dorgerloh, announced on Monday that he wants to bring the Benin bronzes back to Nigeria soon and that some windows of his museum will be empty when it opens this year, reports the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung of March 23, 21. Bronzes looted by the British during the colonial era are considered one of the most important records of African art. After years of debates about the art collections stolen from European museums, Berlin is facing a decision that will certainly have an impact on museums and post-colonial memories in Europe.
The original plans were completely different, namely to expose some of the 440 bronzes from Benin that are in the possession of the Ethnological Museum Berlin in a prominent room of the new Humboldt Museum in the City Palace, the reconstruction of which cost around 700 million euros and that was last year opened digitally. A wave of controversy hit the initiative from the start: now for the Prussian origins of the building, now for dealing with the cultural heritage of the GDR, now for private donations, now for the cross that now crowns the building. The intention of the State and Culture Minister to exhibit ethnological objects (stolen) in the new Humboldt Museum in order to cover the project of a tolerant and cosmopolitan paintwork was the last straw for German civil society. She mainly used the new social media as a platform and sharply criticized the project and its initiators, who in turn defend themselves in the country’s most important newspapers. In December last year, before the opening of the city palace, Yusuf Tuggar, Nigeria’s ambassador to Berlin, reiterated the call for bronzes to be returned via Twitter.
The illegal origin of the pieces is out of the question: most of them were looted by British troops in the city of Benin in 1897 to take revenge on the African uprising against colonial exploitation and sold in London to museums in Europe and the USA
The bronzes of Benin are a group of more than 1000 plaques and figures made of brass and bronze, made by the Edo people of the Kingdom of Benin, now part of Nigeria. They have been decorating the palace of the sovereign since the 16th century, contain religious episodes, tell everyday scenes and battles – even depictions of armed Portuguese. The bronzes made a major contribution to the appreciation of African art in Europe because they contradicted Hegel’s thesis that Africa was a continent of the primitive and savage, liberated from civilization and history. It was even hypothesized that his technique could not be of African origin, but the product of contact with Portuguese, a thesis that has already been refuted.
The illegal origin of the pieces is out of the question: most of them were looted by British troops in the city of Benin in 1897 to take revenge on the African uprising against colonial exploitation and sold in London to museums in Europe and the USA. On the imperial route, the metropolises started a race of museum foundations and corresponding acquisitions of ethnological objects for reasons of prestige. Most of the bronzes are now in the British Museum, followed by museums in Germany and the USA. The Ethnological Museum in Berlin, whose collection is at the center of the controversy today, has the second largest bronze collection in the world.
The question that is now on the table is whether it is appropriate to open a museum intended as the calling card of a reunified Germany to expose art that has been brutally brought to the African continent, and whether the Ethnological Museum Berlin can continue to ignore requests for Nigeria’s restitution. It would be a debt for Berlin if this happened, says Bénédicte Savoy, art historian and advisor to Macron on issues relating to the return of works of art, in an interview with this week’s magazine Der Spiegel. Dorgerloh sees the possibility of using reproductions instead and staging empty spaces. Andreas Görgen, responsible for culture at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has already been to Nigeria to discuss the modalities of the reimbursement. An independent trust that keeps the art objects is discussed. The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees the collections, has yet to make the final decision. In any case, the museums in Munich, Hamburg and Stuttgart, which also have numerous bronzes, pay attention to this – and certainly other international museums as well.
The author writes according to the new orthographic convention